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Avalanche airbags explode into spotlight

by Alicia MacLeay
February 22, 2012

Backcountry Access Float 30 avalanche airbag

The number of avalanche airbags available to backcountry skiers and riders has exploded in North America in the past few years. And you've likely noticed that the safety devices are also getting more media attention this winter, not just in the outdoor world.

Avalanche airbags have been credited with saving several lives in recent avalanches. In the January 25th video above, pro snowboarder Meesh Hytner is caught in an avalanche in Colorado, but stays on top after deploying her BCA Float 30 avalanche airbag.

Most recently, pro skier Elise Saugstad credited her ABS airbag for helping her survive an avalanche near Washington's Stevens Pass, in which three others died (watch Today Show clip).

So far this 2011-12 season, the American Avalanche Association has recorded 18 avalanche deaths. The attention on the fatalities and the gear involved has touched off discussions about the importance of avalanche awareness and safety and the role of backcountry gear.

Here are some media clips on the issue:

  • Avalanches on the Rise for Thrill-Seeking Skiers (The New York Times 2/20/12):
    “It’s mostly the hard-core riders, people who know better,” Bruce Tremper, the director of the Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center, said recently of the trend of experts testing their skills against the backcountry, no matter the conditions.

  • Survivor: Deadly Avalanche A 'Horror Story' (The Associated Press, 2/20/12):
    Powder Magazine senior editor John Stifter, who witnessed the slide that killed three of his skiing companions Sunday, said one person survived by bear-hugging a tree and holding on as the snow barreled over him. Another skier who was caught in the slide was saved when she deployed an air bag designed to keep her afloat.

  • Avalanche Kills Sidecountry Snowboarder in Bear Creek (The Watch, 2/15/12)
    Rescuers say that Nate Soules was riding alone east of the Telluride ski resort when the avalanche occurred. He was fully equipped with an avalanche beacon, an Avalung, and an ABS Air Bag System, which had been deployed (although it had been “shredded,” San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters said).

  • Science Behind Avalanche 'Air Bag' Saves Skier (All Things Considered, NPR, 2/20/12)
    Audie Cornish speaks with Doug Abromeit, former director of and now consultant for the US Forest Service National Avalanche Center, about how the air bag works.


Airbags and other safety devices offer no guarantees in the backcountry, especially without proper instruction and awareness. But backcountry skiers and riders can expect even more options available next winter.

The North Face, Dakine, and Ortovox will join ABS, Backcountry Access, and Mammut (which owns Snowpulse and recently recalled its older airbag cartridges) in offering more backcountry packs and vests equipped with avalanche airbags.